CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — With teachers and some other public workers planning a statewide walkout Thursday and Friday over pay and benefits, many schools around West Virginia have announced plans to close temporarily.
Teachers have held rallies decrying low pay, small proposed increases after several years without them and projected hikes in their insurance costs.
The Legislature on Tuesday night approved a 2 percent raise next year for teachers followed by 1 percent raises the following two years. They also approved a 2 percent raise for school service personnel and state troopers next year and a 1 percent bump the next year.
On Wednesday night, Gov. Jim Justice announced he signed the pay raises into law. “We certainly recognize our teachers are underpaid and this is a step in the right direction,” he said.
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Earlier Tuesday, the Public Employees Insurance Agency agreed to freeze premiums and rates for the next fiscal year for teachers and other public workers covered by the plan.
Those actions haven’t affected teachers’ walkout plans “and in some respects the pay bill upset them more,” West Virginia Education Association spokeswoman Kym Randolph said Wednesday.
A few thousand protesters are expected at the Capitol, where the Legislature is scheduled to meet.
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement calling the impending work stoppage “unlawful,” with state and case law providing the option to seek an injunction to end it. His office is prepared to support state and county authorities “with legal remedies they may choose to pursue to uphold the law,” he said.
Meanwhile, school systems began posting closing plans on their websites. On Wednesday night, the Department of Education listed closings across all the state’s 55 counties for Thursday.
In Monongalia County, which includes Morgantown, Superintendent Frank Devono said all schools will be closed Thursday and Friday, lacking sufficient staff to safely operate schools or transport and feed students.
Earlier this month, 89 percent of the schools’ employees voted to authorize leaders of their three employee associations to declare a statewide work stoppage, which they did, Devono wrote.
The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia said Wednesday that despite negotiation efforts with House and Senate leaders and the governor’s office, “we have not been able to make the progress needed to avoid further action.” Many local units are coordinating with food pantries to help children who rely on school meals, it said.
On the website of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, which represents bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians, President Linda Thompson and Executive Director Joe White said “rolling walkouts” will follow Monday if no progress is made in negotiations.
Kanawha County including Charleston, said all schools will be closed Thursday due to the statewide work stoppage.
Schools in Cabell County, including Huntington, announced plans to close Thursday and Friday but said it was monitoring activities in Charleston and would provide any updates.
West Virginia Department of Education school closings: